At one time or another, many lawyers consider ditching their legal career and doing something else. It’s no surprise why. A recent Forbes article reported that the number-one unhappiest job in America is associate attorney.
Pursuing an alternative career can be worth the (considerable) effort, but before you quit, take a deep breath and make sure you aren’t miserable for more-easily-fixed reasons. If the environment in your law firm is toxic, or if you are practicing in an area you don’t enjoy, do not give up on the profession just yet.
Lawyers can practice the same type of law in many different settings, or practice many different types of law in the same setting. If a change of firm or practice area — or going to a non-profit or government job — might cure the malaise, it is worth a try before leaving the profession entirely. It may not be easy, but when compared to transitioning to another career, it usually is.
If practicing law is the problem, take an inventory of your skills, experience, and passion. Most lawyers have some or all of these skills:
- Problem solving
Consider your experience, too. If you practiced employment law, your knowledge and experience will be a significant advantage in the human resources field. Or if you were an estate planner, you might be in a good position to try for a switch to a bank’s trust department.
Don’t forget time off the clock. Work on a non-profit board, for example, may provide other, non-legal skills that employers may find valuable. For example, if you have been the president of a board, you probably have management and fundraising skills. Or perhaps you have been politically active for a certain cause. If so, those skills might be beneficial to a government job in a similar area.
Finally, decide why you are so interested in the alternative career you have chosen to pursue. “I hate practicing law” will not go very far during a job interview; you need a convincing story about why you want a job outside of law and why the new chosen field is a better match for you than practicing law.
For example, if you’re the employment lawyer seeking an HR position, a “story” can be that you dislike the conflict inherent in employment litigation and would prefer more of a counseling and policy development role in an HR department. An estate planner may dislike the business development aspect of private practice (this story could apply to the employment lawyer as well), but still enjoys the nitty gritty of the complex planning that trust departments do.
There are two advantages to seeking an alternative career in a field related to the legal profession. First, your experience as a lawyer will usually translate into a benefit that employers will understand. For example, if you have been an associate at a law firm doing lots of research, there are probably plenty of opportunities at Thomson Reuters or LexisNexis where that experience will be helpful.
Second, you will not have to do as much second-guessing about your decision to get a law degree. A law degree provides an excellent background for many law-related positions. And with most jobs in the legal sector, you still get to hang around lawyers and still feel connected to the profession — assuming you want to do those things.
Here are just a few of the more-popular examples:
- Legal recruiting
- Legal malpractice carriers
Or, you may want to get as far away from law practice as possible. If so, you may want to consider these two fields:
- Financial institutions
Both industries are heavily regulated by federal and state statutes and regulations and employ both non-lawyers and lawyers in compliance positions. Here, a law degree, as well as private practice experience, could actually provide a lawyer with a competitive edge over a non-lawyer applicant. In these jobs, no one, including yourself, will think you are wasting your legal skills.
Of course, there are plenty more. There are numerous websites that provide more ideas.
Once you have an idea of what kind of job you want, or even where you want to work, research what is going on in that particular field. The Internet is a great place to start.
For example, if you want a job in healthcare compliance, research the Affordable Care Act to determine where there might be some new job opportunities or increased demand in related industries. Get to know which organizations are the major players. Your search may even unearth a conference to attend that could provide additional information.
Your research should be an active exercise. Do some informational interviewing. Find people in the field doing what you think you might want to do, and buy them a cup of coffee. When you request an informational interview, make it clear that you are not seeking a job, but only want to learn about a job or field (on occasion, this type of networking can lead to an actual job, but don’t count on it). You will be surprised how many people will be happy to get together with you and provide you with lots of information. In general, people love to talk about themselves, and are flattered that someone has asked for their advice.
Find answers to following when researching or interviewing.
- What positions are available in this field?
- What are typical salaries?
- What skills are necessary?
- How can one obtain needed experience?
- Are there any professional associations to join now?
Questions to ask about the person you are interviewing:
- How did you get started in this area?
- What do you do during a typical day?
- What do you like most about your job? the least?
- What does the future look like for this field?
- What suggestions do you have that would help get a job in this area?
- Who else do you know that I can I talk to who could provide more information?
And don’t forget a thank-you email or card.
Cherly Heisler, a career consultant who specializes in working with attorneys pursuing an alternative career, sums it up best. Her advice is to
[L]earn everything you possibly can before you jump ship: read about, listen to, network with, and study everything possibly related to the field you hope to pursue so that you are totally prepared for what you are about to get yourself into.
Searching for the alternative career position
There are two job markets; the open one and the hidden one.
The open job market: advertised jobs
There are a wide variety of job websites, and the University of Miami keeps an updated, comprehensive list.
Finding a job in the open job market can be a frustrating experience. Many job openings generate a huge amount of submitted resumes, which means lots of competition. Even more important, employers in this economy usually have the upper hand, and will frequently be able to seek and find job candidates with exactly the work and educational background they are looking for. If one’s only prior work experience has been practicing law, the chances you have such a background are slim.
The hidden job market
Conventional wisdom says that most jobs get filled without ever being advertised. Open positions get filled by bosses asking people if they know people who might be interested. Those people refer from their own network. This is why career experts keep pounding away at the importance of networking. The more people you know who know you are seeking a certain position, the more likely someone will contact you about a job opening.
Interviewing for the job
Prepare for any job interviews by considering your answer to these questions, which are unique to situations where a lawyer interviews for a non-legal job that one must be ready to answer. They include:
- Why don’t you want to be a lawyer any more?
- What makes you think you can succeed in this job with an untraditional background?
- Convince me that you are willing to accept a lower salary (for those of you who are fortunate to have earned a high salary while practicing).
- Convince me that if you take this position, you won’t go back to practicing law.
For more tough questions, see the NALP guide, “Handling Tough Interview Questions” (pdf).
In addition, be prepared to tell your story about why the field or position interests you more than law practice. And be ready to persuade the prospective employer that you have the skills necessary to make the career change.
Don’t be surprised if it takes a lot of time to find a new job. In most cases, the amount of time to find a new job will be proportional to the skills and knowledge you bring to the table. Expect the process to take months, even if you have a strong background for an alternative career. For some, it could even take a few years.
Improve your odds
Since lawyers tend to be risk averse, many who seek alternative careers do so while still employed as an attorney. This is an especially-good idea for those who feel the need to do a significant amount of informational interviewing.
Furthermore, this time can be used to add to your skill set and knowledge base. Many take classes, attend conferences, and volunteer. By doing any of these things, one can enhance skills and knowledge, as well as demonstrate to prospective employers the commitment to an alternative career. These activities also provide opportunities to meet people who can help locate a position.
Ask any lawyer who has pursued an alternative career and they will all say that it required planning and persistence; not to mention, a considerable amount of time and effort. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, according to Heisler, “they also will tell you that doing the work they enjoy, with people they like and respect make it all worthwhile.”
There are a variety of books on this topic. They include the following:
- Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers, Gary A. Munneke, William D. Hensley, and Ellen Wayne
- The Unhappy Lawyer, Monica Parker
- Judgment Reversed: Alternative Careers for Lawyers, Jeffry Strausser
- The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook: More than 300 Things You Can Do With A Law Degree, Hindi Greenberg
- Alternative Careers for Lawyers, Hillary Mantis
- Running from the Law: Why Good Lawyers are Getting out of the Legal Profession, Deborah Aaron
- What Can You do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, Deborah Aaron
- Should You Really Be A Lawyer?” The Guide to Smart Career Choices Before, During & After Law School, Deborah Schneider
Originally published on December 29th, 2013 and updated on July 18th, 2019